Australia Tour 2011 – Monday, Feb. 7

It’s day 4 of the trip (well actually day 5 counting the travel, but Friday disappeared somewhere over the Pacific). After a long flight, a day’s stopover in Sydney and arrival on Sunday in Perth, I am nearly de-jetlagged. The weather here is very very hot as it is the height of summer in the southern hemisphere.

A bird's eye view of Sydney harbour about 1 minute before landing Feb 5

Yesterday, Monday, I met with Prof Denise Chalmers of Western Australia University. Prof Chalmers is a leading figure in Australian higher education pedagogical scholarship and is Director of UWA’s Centre for Advancement of Teaching and Learning. We had a good chat over a ‘flat white’ (Australian term for a coffee with milk, in a short cup) about some of UWA’s innovations in teaching, and Australian higher education policy generally.

A key difference between Australia and Canada is that here, PSE is a federal matter, governed from the national government in Canberra. The states (=our provinces) have a much smaller role than do their Canadian counterparts (one of these roles is to ‘audit’ the universities financial management notwithstanding that the money itself originates federally). This has led to a certain levelling of the playing field from one end of the country to another, and permitted a national PSE policy in a way that we cannot imagine in Canada, with 10 different provincial jurisdictions. The down side is that when cuts happen, they affect everyone–the national council on teaching and learning set up a few years ago has just been announced as dissolving by the end of the year. On the other hand, the government in bestowing grant funding has traditionally differentiated among its institutions and not simply spread all the money out evenly. For example, a recent block of funding for teaching innovation invited applications from institutions, and a few got a lot of the funding, and others got none, depending on the proposal. What is fascinating is that the research-intensive schools in the ‘Group of 8′ (=our ‘G15′) did very well out of the competition, suggesting that in Australia, as in Canadian universities such as Queen’s, it is possible to find a commitment to strong and innovative teaching within a research-intensive environment.

The other interesting fact I gleaned from my chat with Denise Chalmers: as they are in internationalization (for which see more later this week), the Australians are way ahead of the rest of the world on issues of distance learning and especially blended learning. They in fact patented some major software for lecture-capture, Lectopia, which has been bought out and commercialized by Echo360, a private firm which deals with educational software.

Winthrop Hall at the U of Western Australia

Denise was careful to point out a couple of things about UWA’s well advanced experiment in blended learning (the term ‘virtualization’ did not arise):

1. This was not a cost-saving measure, and indeed the up-front costs of it are not inconsiderable. The real cost-saving is in instructor time as once done a lecture doesn’t need to be repeated for a few years (apart from routine updating of material).

2. Lectures are best done in small chunks of time–not as one might think, filling a whole hour as if emulating the classroom timetable.

3. While powerpoint etc can be integrated into a streamed lecture, video is rarely used–no ‘talking heads’ of professors. Rather, students hear the prof’s voice and see the material being projected simultaneously. All of this can be downloaded on to ipods.

4. The students who use the streamed lectures tend to be the ones who go to class (it’s not clear whether the same pattern would apply in Canada as we are so new at this that we don’t have many data yet), and use it as a supplement to what they are reading and hearing in the classroom. It does allow the classroom to be much more about discussion, even in a large room and less about the ‘sage on the stage’.

Tomorrow I will write about my experiences at Curtin University of Technology, also here in Perth.

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